Sunday, April 26, 2009

Living the Life of Christ in a Death-Ridden World

Texts: Deuteronomy 30:11-20; Colossians 3:1-17

TWO WEEKS AGO we celebrated Easter Sunday. We affirmed with joy that Jesus Christ our crucified Savior really is alive, that He has conquered death, and that we have new life in Him. And in the glow of Easter morning, we believed it.

But lately the world, the flesh, and the devil seem to be throwing everything at us to make us stop believing it. We keep hearing about death, death, and more death. There was the massacre in Binghamton, New York. We had three policemen murdered the day before Palm Sunday right here in Pittsburgh. Across the country, there have been other infamous murders and suicides we've recently heard about. The appalling thing is that in many of these cases, the accused perpetrators were those who should have been protecting their victims, not ending their lives.

What makes it worse is when the evil has a church connection. We claim that we've been born again to new life in Christ and that life is holy and transformed and nothing like the old corrupt life we were born into on this earth. But Death and the devil sneer back at us, "Oh yeah? So why does so much evil come out of the very bosom of the church?" We claim that sort of person couldn't be a real, converted Christian, but the world laughs in our face. Seriously. Read Christopher Hitchin's book God Is Not Great. Or check out the comments left under news articles on the Internet. The world says that if a priest or minister or Sunday School teacher commits a terrible crime, it just proves that Christians are no better than anyone else. And even if Jesus was actually raised from the dead, it doesn't make any difference, because we who believe in Him aren't changed. And Death and the devil laugh at us, saying, "You poor deluded Christians. You say your Jesus conquered Death. Well, we doubt it, since there's still so much of it around!"

So how do we prove that it makes a real difference that Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures? How do we stand firm against all the assaults of this world that try to make us doubt what God has done to defeat Death?

And how can we become living demonstrations of God's victory, when our culture of death is telling us what Jesus did is no use?

The answer may surprise you. According to the Apostle Paul writing in the Letter to the Colossians, we do it by using the Enemy's own weapon against him. The devil comes against us in the power of Death; we take Death in our hands and turn around and destroy him with it.

Or rather, Jesus Christ the Son of God did that for us, and we do it in Him.

Let's back up into chapter 2. In verse 13, the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul writes that we all started out dead in our sins and in the uncircumcision of our sinful natures. Circumcision was the sign and seal of Israel's covenant with God, but we were outside of that covenant, without life and without hope. But, Paul says in verse 11, in Christ we have now been circumcised. We've been brought into the covenant of His life. How? As it says in verse 12, God buried us dead people with Christ in baptism and He has now raised us with Him through faith in the power of God to bring life out of death.

Jesus worked that miracle for us on the cross. He experienced the ultimate death, the death of the beloved Son of God who'd never known a moment of sin or been separated from His heavenly Father from all eternity. Jesus Christ snatched the Enemy's weapon out of his hand and, as it says in Chapter 2, verse 15, by the cross He disarmed the powers and authorities-- that is, Death and the devil-- and made a laughingstock out of them.

Do you trust in Jesus Christ? Then His death is your death and His life is your life! Yes, senseless, vicious, vile death still runs rampant in this world. We mourn it, we deplore it; when appropriate, we seek justice against it. But it does not nullify the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ. As it is written in Romans 6:9 and 10,

"For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God."

Death and this sinful world tries to convince us that because death still is at large in the world these 2,000 years since Jesus' resurrection, His resurrection went for nothing. How wrong that is! In 1 Corinthians 15 it is written that at the end of this age, when Christ will destroy all dominion, authority, and power-- all the power of the devil and his demons-- He will hand the kingdom over to God the Father. Then all his enemies will be put under His feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed is death.

But why does God put off His final victory so long? Why must we suffer and die from disease and old age, let alone cold-blooded murder?

God waits for the sake of His chosen, covenant people. It's God's eternal plan to bring in every last one of His elect children into the glorious life of His Son. Some of our brothers and sisters in the faith have not even been born yet. So our merciful, wise God holds back His ultimate victory until our number is complete.
Meanwhile, death is still our vicious foe, but Christ through His death has overcome it. So if you believe in Him-- if you have been buried with Jesus in His baptism and raised with Him in His resurrection-- death has no more power over you! As it says in Colossians 3, verses 3 and 4, "For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears"-- at the end of the age-- "then you will also appear with him in glory."

This isn't just a figure of speech, or a way of saying you've become more spiritual or you have some kind of higher moral awareness! No. These verses truly describe where Jesus Christ is safeguarding your true self through what He did for you in His cross and resurrection.

So then, the Scripture says, "Since you have been raised with Christ"-- since this is now the truth about who you are and whose you are-- "set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God."

Should Christians be better than nonChristians? If that means pretending we're not sinners saved by pure grace or that somehow in ourselves we're morally superior, no. But if it means we should live the holy life of Christ in a death-ridden world, absolutely. Yes.

It isn't automatic and it isn't easy, but that is His call on our lives. It begins with keeping in mind Whom we belong to and where He is keeping us.

So, "Set your hearts on things above." So should we Christians should just think Beautiful Thoughts all the time and totally ignore the trouble and warfare and evil that rages through this death-ridden world?. We know better than that. Setting our hearts on things above means taking up the weapon that is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ and opposing Death daily with everything Christ has in us. We don't need to command angelic armies to be effective in this combat: Every last one of us is engaged in an epic struggle against sin and death-- right in the arena of our ordinary lives.

We begin with our own bodies and hearts. The Apostle says, "Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed . . . " These sins are all about satisfying our desires, lusts, and cravings in a way that leaves God and His gift of life out of the picture. The Scripture equates greed with idolatry, and that sums up this whole list. Whether we're perverting sex, or food, or property, or any other good thing, these sinful urges and impulses look to something other than God to satisfy our physical and emotional needs. We may as well say, "God, I don't believe You can be trusted to fill my needs or make me happy, so I'm turning to something else." In our reading from Deuteronomy Moses charged the children of Israel to choose life over death before they entered the Promised Land. He told them if they chose death it'd show itself in their turning to other gods, to worship and depend on them. And for their choice of death, the Lord God would bring death on them. Paul says the same: Because of sins like these, the wrath of God is coming. God must judge them and those who commit them, for they're part of the death that Jesus Christ will totally defeat.
But that is not God's plan for you. You have been raised with Christ, and His plan for you is life! So live according to that truth about yourself. The minute the idolatrous desire arises, kill it! The minute you realize you are misusing any good gift of God and making it a god instead of Him, call on the Holy Spirit to come to your aid. Raise up the sword of the Word of God and put that perversion to death.

In the same way, purge out the sins of the heart, the mind and the tongue. It's easy to think that sexual immorality is the worst of sins. But God just as much hates anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language, and lying. How many church members wouldn't even consider going to a prostitute or looking at pornography online, but they justify gossiping from one end of the day to the other? It's especially vicious when it's that sneaky, pretended-holy kind of slander that too often goes on in the church against those whom God has charged with leading the church. You know how it goes. The slanderer goes to the pastor, or the choir director, or the head of the Christian Ed. department, and says, "By the way, A Lot of People are complaining about you." And the leader says, "Who's complaining? What are they complaining about?" And the slanderer says, "I can't tell you. It was confidential! But they're really complaining!" You do that to a church leader, you may as well stick a dagger in his heart. Talk like that does not model the life of Christ; it jumps on the bandwagon with Death.

Truly, sins of the mind and mouth are symptoms of that same idolatrous, God-denying attitude. Think about the times you've given way to these sins. You likely felt threatened or fearful. You'd been dealt a real blow to your property or a relationship or to your self-esteem.

But it is not for us to flee to the idols of sin when we're in danger or afraid! No, we flee to the throne of God, where Jesus Christ is seated in glory. We appeal to His life; we don't seek our help from the minions of Death! We have taken off the clothing of our old sinful self like the filthy T-shirt you mowed the lawn in yesterday and put on the beautiful clean new garment of the new self, which is being renewed to look more and more like Jesus Christ.

This will show itself in how we treat one another in the Church. No double standards. No treating some members better or worse because of their skin color or national origin or age or sex ir whether they're rich or poor or went to college or didn't. Christ is all, He is in all of us, and in Him we treat every Christian brother or sister just as if he or she were Christ Himself.

The last few years, it's become fashionable for congregations to publicize their "casual" worship services, where people can "come as they are" and don't have to dress up to come to church. That may apply to the unconverted. But as believers in Jesus Christ and participants in His heavenly life, we are commanded to dress up to meet with Almighty God. In fact, we are to dress in our best wherever and whenever we may be. Our clothing is to be compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Our well-tailored shirt and slacks or our well-designed dress is to be patience with one another and forgiveness when another Christian has done us a hurt. And our coat and tie or our Sunday hat is love; not the self-centered, self-gratifying love of this world, but the deep, sacrificial, life-giving love we find in Jesus Christ.

This is how we live His resurrection life in a death-ridden world. We model His life as Christian individuals; but far beyond that, we demonstrate His life as His body, the Church. The peace of Christ promised here is the peace that should shine through this congregation and through all the congregations of Christ's church, for it is the peace with God that Jesus our Saviour won for us by His blood.

We started with the hard reality of death in the world, and with the world's doubt that we as Christians have any answer to that. And I wouldn't be surprised if an unbeliever should look at the words of verses 15b and 16 and say, "Huh. It says you Christians are to be thankful, and let the word of Christ dwell in you, and teach and admonish one another in it. And singing. You're supposed to sing-- in your hearts, yet. And here's this thing about ‘gratitude' again. What good will that do in a world where whole families are being killed and policemen are murdered just doing their jobs?"

By the Holy Spirit working in us, we know it will do all the good in the world. The word of Christ we are to lodge in our hearts and teach and admonish and sing is the blessed good news of the death-defying life He has won for us and all the world by His death on the cross. And the One to whom we are to be thankful, the One to whom we are to bear everlasting gratitude, is none other than the Almighty Creator God, Lord of the Universe and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is the One who judges sin; He is the One before Whom death and the devil flee; He is the One Who has raised us up to heaven where Christ is, seated at the right hand of His power. And that power is not confined to heaven; it fills the whole world.

How do we live the life of Christ in a death-ridden world? We remember Whose and what and where we truly are. By the power of the Holy Spirit we put to death whatever in us doesn't match up with that glorious reality, and we walk in the life that is Jesus Christ Himself.

Thankfulness and gratitude keeps us remembering. Thankfulness and gratitude to God is the 180° opposite of idolatry. Death is still at large in this fallen world, and sometimes its face is overwhelmingly hideous. But more overwhelmingly beautiful and strong is the face of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. We have been raised with Him, we are seated with Him, our true lives are safeguarded with Him, and so on this earth we live His resurrection life in the power of His name, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.